What happens to Black women in French politics?
France’s new government spokeswoman, Sibeth Ndiaye, has been the target of racist and sexist attacks on the internet ever since president Emmanuel Macron appointed her for the position on March 31st. Ndiaye has been a controversial figure in France’s political scene for the past few years, having worked as a media advisor during Macron’s 2017 presidential campaign. However, some of the criticism she is facing seems to be completely unrelated to her political ideas and positions, but simply for the fact that she is a Senegalese-born Black woman occupying a position of power in French politics.
Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon in the country. Black women who have entered the political sphere in France have almost systematically faced backlash, again, not always for their political views, but precisely for being Black women doing politics in a majority-white country. Black women such as National Assembly members Danièle Obono and Laetitia Avia, as well as former Minister of Justice, Christiane Taubira, have shown that Black female bodies, when they refuse the locus of subalternity, still represent a source of annoyance to more conservative parcels of French society. The manifestations of racism and sexism take numerous forms, such as being asked to say “vive la France” (“long live France”) so as to prove their real allegiance to the country, as was the case for Obono; receiving anonymous letters with racist and misogynous insults and death threats, as was the case for Avia; or being compared to a monkey in the newspaper, for Taubira.
Now, it seems it is Sibeth Ndiaye’s turn to deal with the viciousness of the French far-right. It is obviously legitimate that there are people discontent with her nomination based on political grounds; opposition is a necessary aspect of democracy. Nevertheless, the attacks Mrs. Ndiaye has had to deal with are less concerned with the content of what she does and more with her person, especially, her body. She has been criticised for being born in Senegal (having acquired French citizenship in 2016), for her dark skin, for having natural hair, for the way she expresses herself, and even for wearing flowery dresses. After the announcement of her nomination, far-right profiles took to twitter to express their frustration. Some asking for the prohibition for people with double nationalities to occupy positions in the government, others arguing that Ndiaye’s natural hair was disrespectful towards the position she now occupies, and there were even those who wrote that, with her nomination, Africa was now the spokesperson for France. There were even jokes about how, from now on, the cleaning lady would be the government’s spokeswoman or that her nomination exposed France to international ridicule.
The conservative discourse about respectability and professionalism is just one more way of reinforcing the racist and sexist dynamics of power in French society. Besides, it follows the logic that neutrality is white and male. Respectability is white and male. In order to be perceived as professional and serious, minorities need to strive to conform to codes that present themselves as neutral but are designed to maintain an unequal access to power. When they refuse to play the respectability game, they face backlash. Furthermore, this conception of respectability is deeply rooted in the idea that seriousness and respectability are incompatible with Blackness. Thus, by stating that Ndiaye’s natural hair is disrespectful towards French political institutions, and therefore incompatible with it, one is conveying the message that Blackness itself is incompatible with French politics.
The way Ndiaye is perceived by conservative France comes to no surprise when one is familiar with France’s universalist tradition and its conception of integration. Universalism à la française posits that the only legitimate community is the nation. French citizenship is the only valid source of identity and any attempts to establish bonds that exist outside or beyond citizenship are publicly condemned. Therefore, following this logic, there is no room for the idea of Black community, Gay community, Arab community, or any community other than the national one. Similarly, there is no room for socio-political performances that are unapologetically communitarian. In this sense, Ndiaye’s natural hair, with its symbolism of self-assertion clashes with the French idea of integration through self-effacement.
Through the logic of universalism, France declares itself to be a colour-blind society, everyone being equal under the law. In this sense, individuals should not impose their “ontological” characteristics on the public sphere. Thus, a frequent reactionary answer to antiracist activism is to say that it is not important if someone is Black, North-African, or White, everyone is the same. Likewise, we should not talk about women as a different, separate group, as they are just the same as everyone else. And God forbid Black women should talk about the specificities of their oppression. The only valid discussion to the French public eye, when talking about people of colour’s access to important positions, is whether or not they are competent, as if the perception of competence was a neutral, objective one.
Ironically, the attacks Ndiaye has been facing are everything but colour-blind. By focusing on her body, on the way she presents her body to the public eye, this discourse reaffirms her position as Other. As minorities, our existences are essentially defined by the way our bodies are read, and the subsequent violence that is imposed on them, be it physical or symbolic. A Black female body, in spite of the powerful positions it might occupy, still represents an Other in the eyes of conservative France. The backlash she is facing are but attempts to “put her back in her place” of the Other who should not aspire to subvert the logic of power.
The viciousness of this system of oppression, as it happens in France, is that Black women are often attacked for their natural hair, often face difficulties in their professional lives because of it, but if they decide to draw attention to this reality, their arguments are quickly discarded as trivial, unimportant. There is a double mechanism of domination in place: Black women, and people of colour in general, are discriminated against because of their ethnicity, but concomitantly, dominant discourse in France states that there are no races, therefore there is no point in talking about their experience as racial minorities. “We are all human beings,” they say. Thus, in a rather insidious way, it becomes almost impossible to tackle the issues of racism and discrimination in French society as there are barriers to the production and mechanisms of invalidation of public discourse on the matter.
However, more and more, minorities are talking about the oppression the face within French society. Though it remains taboo, people of colour increasingly take to social media to denounce the violence of their racist reality in France. Likewise, Black women in politics have all addressed the attacks of which they are victims in a way that has the potential to create more spaces for public debate around racism, sexism, and oppression in France. In the wake of her nomination as Government Spokeswoman and the subsequent attacks she received, Sibeth Ndiaye, for instance, gave an interview to BFMTV in which she addressed the fact that, as a Black woman, her position is constantly questioned, and that she asked herself if she was able to deal with it all. However, she said that she has so often been the recipient of racist and sexist attacks that she considers herself to be “vaccinated” against it. Her strength is admirable, but it is important not to romanticise strength that comes from the frequent experience of discrimination and oppression.
The backlash Ndiaye and other Black women face in the political sphere is but the reaction of a country that struggles to reinvent itself in the aftermath of decolonisation. These attacks are the manifestations of groups that cling to power and are resistant to see social and political change take place. Nevertheless, change is inevitable. People of colour, and more importantly, women of colour are here to stay, and no longer here simply to occupy the positions white conservative France is comfortable with. The structures of power are changing, and that is what the far-right is afraid of.